BOOKSHELF: Measuring Russia’s StrengthStoner’s Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment of Russia’s New Strength

By Paul Saunders

Published 5 May 2021

Understanding Russia’s power and the Russian leadership’s goals is a necessary task in formulating effective policy. Moreover, as Russia has become considerably more powerful over the last two decades, the stakes in accurately discerning the Kremlin’s motives have become commensurately higher.If Russia Resurrected approached these challenges with more care, discipline and nuance, it could have been an important work.

Kathryn E. Stoner, Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (Oxford University Press, February 2021)

As the U.S.-Russian relationship has become increasingly adversarial, Russia’s power and behavior have drawn increasing attention from policymakers, journalists and scholars. This has in turn fueled discussion and debate surrounding Russia’s capabilities and its government’s aims. Stanford University scholar Kathryn E. Stoner seeks to contribute to this important national conversation in her new book Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order. Notwithstanding useful contributions to understanding Russia’s new strength, the book falls short in explaining when and why Russia employs its power.

Stoner contends that Russia is in fact more powerful than it may appear if one relies on what she terms “traditional means of power”—counts of “men, money and material”—and that the principal driver of Russia’s foreign policy is “a patronalist autocracy that has an interest in maintaining the domestic status quo.” First, Stoner asserts, power is relational; it depends on the state exercising power and its target. Second, she adds, to measure power, analysts must assess it across three dimensions: policy scope (specific issues across which Russia’s behavior affects others), geographic domain (specific places where Russia seeks to exercise its power) and means (specific capabilities available to Russia). She overlays two cross-cutting factors onto policy scope and geographic domain: the concepts of weight (the likely effectiveness of Russian efforts) and costs (to Russia, and to its target in complying or resisting). Finally, Stoner notes, power can be actual or potential. For example, she describes nuclear weapons as an example of “power in potential.”

Stoner assesses policy scope and geographic domain—as well as weight and costs—in qualitative terms but applies quantitative measures to means, with some supporting qualitative evaluation. While engaging, the scope and domain narrative can make it difficult for the reader to draw systematic conclusions about Russia’s relative power or priorities across issues and regions. The book’s survey of Russia’s means has some shortcomings too, most notably in providing international context for Moscow’s rearmament.